In Chennai, Tamil Nadu, Kayal and her boss, Neela, have created a bibliophilic paradise in Pradeep Sebastian’s profoundly bookish, The Book Hunters of Katpadi. Reading this book, as it works it way through two big plot arcs and numerous asides, is a deep dive into the world of collecting antiquarian books. There are many parts of this book that are essentially a sit down with one expert or another about letterpress printing, the history of Sir Richard Francis Burton‘s time in India, bibliophilic clubs, rare children’s books, and other topics. This book will be catnip for some readers, but I fear that it will be on the dull side for readers who don’t want to attend a seminar on a bunch of different things with “biblio-” affixed to the topic.
Kayal was a somewhat aimless graduate student with a predilection for book arts when she is snapped up by rare book dealer, Neelambari Adigal, to work at Biblio. Biblio, we are often told, is India’s first antiquarian bookstore. The aim of this store is to provide rare editions of books published before 1950 to the ravenous bibliophilic collectors around the country, as well as offer browsers from off the street a place where they can see and touch rare books. There are a few chapters in The Book Hunters of Katpadi that explain why there isn’t as robust a rare book culture in India as there is in Europe and North America, mostly due to the late start printing got in India, readers’ stronger interest in “reading copies,” and a climate that is not always kind to paper and ink. Thanks to this book, I now know more than I think I ever wanted to know about the antiquarian book trade in India.
There are two plot arcs, as I mentioned before, that break up the lectures. (There are lectures that are quoted at length in this book.) First, Kayal gets involved with some bookish shenanigans at the Madras Christian College. Thanks to the efforts of one of the school’s priests, it comes to her attention that the soon-to-retire librarian has helped himself to the most valuable books in the chapel library as a retirement gift. This librarian has sold off some of these books, but it’s unclear whether the librarian is a bibliomaniac, a thief, or some combination of the two. The second plot takes up more of the book and involves a strange discovery at a former hill station. A teacher at the local school claims to have documents by Sir Richard Francis Burton that were previously thought lost—plus a family legend that claims they are descended from the explorer. The discovery sets off a papery bomb in the bibliophilic world.
I don’t feel as though The Book Hunters of Katpadi is a fully formed novel. Instead, it feels to me like a few linked short stories surrounded by dialogue and didactic chapters that teach the reader about this little slice of the world. I was interested in a lot of it, but it was more heavy handed than I liked. There is some nice character development, but not enough to make up for all the places where the story came to a dead halt while we were told about the Roxburghe and Grolier Clubs, Burton’s eye infection, or apologia for The Story of Little Black Sambo. The Book Hunters of Katpadi turned out to be a disappointing experience.